African Bird Uses Fake Warnings to Steal Food From Neighbors

By April Reese | May 1, 2014 1:20 pm

drongo bird

In Australia, drongo is slang for idiot. “That drongo just cut me off!” an Aussie driver might say. The epithet was inspired by a red-eyed black bird native to Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Africa and Asia. But Aussies might want to reconsider their choice of words: According to a new study, the drongo may well be one of the brightest bulbs in the avian world.

Researcher Tom Flower at University of Cape Town, South Africa, found that fork-tailed drongos in the Kuruman River Reserve in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert call out fake warnings to trick other animals, such as meerkats, into abandoning their food so they can steal it.

The duped birds do eventually catch on, but the drongo has come up with a way to keep fooling them – and keep the free meals coming – by mixing up their mimicry.

Variable Mimics

“Deception is common in nature and other birds have previously been shown to ‘cry wolf,’” Flower said in an email. “What really surprised me is that drongos also employed vocal mimicry to vary their alarms. They changed the type of alarm call they made when a previous call stopped working, thereby maintaining their deception racket.”

Drongos do catch some food themselves, primarily flies they pluck from the air or bugs pecked from the ground. But by raiding the caches of other species, they’re able to greatly diversify their diet. Flower says he’s seen them steal crickets, spiders, scorpions, even geckos – many of which took a lot of work for their original owners to procure.

“All these things are terrestrial and most have to be excavated by other species,” Flower says. Drongos do most of their stealing in the cold winter months, “when flies aren’t moving,” he adds.

Bird Tracking

Flower and colleagues discovered drongos’ penchant for pilfering while closely monitoring a population of drongos in the Kuruman River Reserve, which lies within the Kalahari Desert in South Africa, not far from the Botswana border. He walked between five and 15 kilometers a day through their sandy habitat, six days a week, for six months every year for five years, observing and recording drongo behavior. Over the course of 847.5 hours, Flower and his fellow researchers counted 688 theft attempts by 64 drongos, they report this week in the journal Science.

“I dread to think how many sand dunes I’ve climbed, but it was worth it to get the data I needed,” Flower says.


Image courtesy Tom Flower

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals
  • Diane Clark

    Now that’s dedication on the researcher’s part. Bird looks like a Phainopepla.

  • William Lee Alves Barnes

    OK, I know that you’re counting on our imagination to fill in, but I want to see THE VIDEO of this smart-ass bird ripping off hard won provisions (facts of life – or survival of the fittest?). This is not fantastic, but it is amazing and gives an inkling to perhaps what species will dominate the Earth after we kill ourselves off (400+ ppm carbon dioxide atmosphere).

  • Sunika Sullwald (u14012040)

    It is incredible how bird species adapt to their environment to survive by changing their ways of hunting/scavenging and their features to enable them to survive in a new hostile environment. In the beginning it was mostly survival of the fittest and later on Evolution and natural selection that gave us the amazing Drongos we see and learn from today. All these aspects played a roll in evolving this bird to what it is today. Looking at Charles Darwin’s Studies and research on the Galapalos Islands we can make an assumption about this Drongo birds. In the above text is states that these birds hunt on small insects namely flies, but in winter when flies are hiding and going into a process called diapause, the food resources of the Drongo are low and they have to get another means of food. They are able to eat another source of food by mimicking the warning signs of other animals and stealing prey from another animal.There are many examples of birds that developed and evolved other skills to survive. One of Darwin’s finches developed the skill to use tools to hunt for larva, by using a cactus spine. Another example is the Egyptian vulture that takes a large pebble or rock to break bird eggs. These are all examples of ways birds adapt in order to survive in a changing environment. It is their way of living and survive in the changing environment.

    • Bernadette Brown

      Or perhaps, it had an amazing designer.


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